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Few Americans knew or cared that Senator and General and ex-President
Batista y Zaldívar overthrew the government of Dr. Carlos Prío
Socarrás in two hours on March 10, 1952. Time magazine, the newsweekly, even
showed him on its cover on April 9, 1952 but only a small minority of people
in the United States read Time. Cuba was that shark-shaped island off the
Florida coast where tourists went to see the sites, gamble, drink, sun bathe,
and whore. It was the source of sugar, rum, fine cigars, "Latin" music, and
Ricky Ricardo, the husband and bandleader on the "I Love Lucy" television
show. Those a little more knowledgeable knew that US gangsters had used it as
a base and a resort since the 1930s when things got too hot for them in the
United States. Others knew of its propensity for violence, both public and
private. Its university students demonstrated against the government, beat
and killed their opponents while their US counterparts exacted their revenge
on their enemies through intercollegiate football games. Students had no
monopoly on the use of violence; older Cubans could be quite ferocious with
each other as well. Most Americans, who were "white," saw all this disorder
as being typical of "lesser breeds;" intuitively, at least, they understood
that most Cubans were not "white," being, instead, a mixture of European,
African, Amerind, and other groups. They probably did not know that Batista
himself was a mixture of Africans, Amerind, Chinese, and European. What they
did know was that Cuba had had another revolution (actually a coup d'état but
few people understood the distinction), something they believed was chronic in
Latin American countries.
In some ways, they were right, for Batista was a strong man who had ruled Cuba between 1933-1944 and was so powerful that he could easily overthrow the government in a matter of hours and hold it even though he suffered an outbreak of chicken pox for a few days. Even though that government was corrupt and ineffectual, its overthrow was phenomenal. Many were disgusted with the government of Prío Socarrás and disliked his abortive attempt to change the constitution so he could get re-elected. The true reformers, the Ortodoxos, had lost their champion when Senator Eduardo Chibás committed suicide on his radio show in 1951. The Auténticos of Prío Socarrás were worse. Young Cubans, such as Fidel Castro Ruz, an Ortodoxo, had hoped their parry would gain power and reform the government and country. Young army officers encouraged Senator Batista to act. Few complained when he did. The conservative President Dwight D. Eisenhower recognized the Batista government on March 27, 1952, clearly that it was not as much interested in democracy as having a docile, pro-American government.
Batista suspended the constitution; replaced Congress with an 80-man consultative council; and dissolved all political parties. He pampered the army and the police, understanding that they would be critical to saying in power. He used Urgency Courts to expedite the trials of those who opposed him. He curried the favor of labor with wage hikes while banning strikes. Freedom of expression was not seriously curtailed and students rioted frequently. Political leaders issued manifestos.
Cuba was prosperous under Batista. He adopted a sugar stabilization plan in 1952 which reduced production from seven million down to five million tons. Overproduction was a problem for all sugar-producing countries. He managed to offset some of the lost income with more industrial plants and the growth of tourism. US citizens, in particular, were using post-WWII prosperity to travel. He launched numerous public works, which, by their very nature, provided money to a host of people across the economic spectrum.
Prosperity was uneven. For the sugar cane working who was unemployed half the year and discouraged from finding other employment so as to be available when the plantation owner needed him, life did not improve. Even though Cuba had the fourth highest standard of living in Latin America, that was not high. Besides, Cubans compared themselves to the US not Honduras or Bolivia. Illiteracy was high; schools too few; affordable medical care almost impossible for the average person to get; and housing substandard. Rural areas suffered more than urban areas because Cuban presidents had always feared the cities more. In short, social justice was a victim of the Batista years.
Opposition to Batista came from a variety of sources. Old line politicians wanted him out so they could return to power. Prío Socarrás financed guns, bribes, and anti-Batista propaganda. Students and other young people demonstrated against him and plotted his overthrow. On July 26, 1953, a group of young people attacked the Moncada Barracks near Santiago de Cuba. They failed and were arrested. At his trial, the leader, twenty-six-year-old Fidel Castro Ruz, was sentenced to fifteen years in prison. At his trial, however, the young man who had attended law school, spoke at length about Cuban injustices and the need to restore the 1940 Constitution. He asserted that the Cuban people would not support a dictator. The “History Will Absolve Me” speech caught the public imagination and made him a martyr. The myth grew. Batista, for his part, declared a 90-day siege and clamped down on civil liberties.
By the beginning of 1954, the crisis was over. He lifted the state of siege. Business boomed. The US government arrested Prío Socarrás for gun running and fined him. Batista ran for President on his Progressive Action Party ticket against former President Ramon Grau San Martin. Grau San Martin withdrew before the voting; he saw it was useless. Batista, basking in victory, declared a general amnesty in May, letting political prisoners out of jail. Castro was one of them; he and a few friends went to Mexico City to plot revolution. Prío Socarrás came back to Cuba. The press was almost entirely free. The country was calm except for a mass meeting in the Fall of 1955. Commerce and tourism flourished. Most of the prosperity favored Cubans. The Batista regime grew self-satisfied. It could not imagine any serious opposition would occur. It officials and cronies, the army, and the police went about their duties haphazardly and stole more.
In December, 1956, Fidel Castro and eighty-one others landed in Cuba from Mexico on the boat, the Granma. They thought that their arrival would spark uprisings all over the island against Batista. They were wrong. Batista’s government knew they were coming and managed to capture all but twelve of them. Castro, his brother Raul, the Argentine radical Ernesto “Che” Guevara, and nine others managed to escape into the Sierra Maestra mountains. The Batista government announced that Fidel was dead and then went about its business.
Fidel was alive and the 26th of July Movement was growing. He had a radio broadcaster with which to send message throughout the island and a printing press. He had money and guns supplied by sympathizers and confederates throughout the island. Fidel was smart, smarter than his opponents, and a masterful propagandist. No one could seriously doubt that he was alive. He flooded Cuba with propaganda depicting himself and his followers as wanting to restore democracy and improve the lives of the average Cuban against the corrupt, dictatorial Batista regime which, he said, was only interested in the rich and powerful, including the US. The Castroites began bombing school and cinemas to show that the Batista regime could not protect people. In March, 1957, they led a mass attack on the presidential palace and almost found and killed him. He became cautious about appearing in public. Castro's forces began burning sugar fields. Although they failed at times, they succeeded more often than not. All they had to do to discredit the government was prove that it could not perform its primary function--protection of life and property. By January 7, 1957, Time magazine was reporting that the Batista government could not cope.
The anti-Batista forces were more than just Fidel Castro and his group. Student turbulence became so common that Batista shout down the national university and high schools. The Catholic Church and labor leaders proclaimed their neutrality. Middle class businessmen quietly withdrew support. As Batista imposed censorship and increased suppression, he lost support. He sent much of his army into Oriente province, Castro's home, but his soldiers could get to Castro's men in the Sierra Maestra mountains. Soldiers sold their weapons to Castro (they were ill paid) or defected. From the US, mostly, anti-Batista forces sent weapons. Exiles returned to participate.
The year 1958 was worse for Batista. His regime had lost its moral authority. The sugar harvest, the zafra, was held early to keep Castro from burning the fields. Sabotage increased. The police responded with beatings, brutality, and mass jailings. Castro, who was portraying himself as a folk hero who personified the hope of the common man, stepped up his propaganda efforts. Cleverly, he refused to work with other anti-Batista groups; he wanted to claim sole credit for bringing Batista down. By the Spring of 1958, riding busses and trains in Cuba was unsafe because the attacks were so frequent. Bombings closed most public schools. Soldiers and public officials feared assassination. Tourism dropped drastically as fear increased.
In April, it appeared that Castro had failed. He called for a general strike--a massive work stoppage throughout the island but it failed. Many anti-Batista groups, including the Communist, who had turned against their benefactor, refused to support it. Although the US canceled arms shipments to the government, Batista's 40,000 man army was loyal. So, too, were labor leaders. He ignored the call of Catholic bishops for him to compromise with Castro (who would not have agreed anyway). Confident that the opposition was no longer a threat, he scheduled presidential elections for November, 1958. He would run Andrés Riva Agüero against Ramón Grau San Martín of the Auténticos and Carlos Márquez Sterling of the Ortodoxos. Andrés Riva Agüero would win by a landslide, of course; Batista could not afford to have an honest election.
Castro and the other anti-Batista forces had not been beaten, however. Castro threatened death to the candidates and promised terror to the voters. His people kidnapped US businessmen and sailors. The rural population continued to withdraw support from Batista and give it to Castro. The business and professional class deserted Batista followed by urban workers. The dictator had lost the support of the US which would not intervene. The US was waiting for the end of Batista's term in February, 1959, in hopes that a free government would be created. Only his army and police kept him in power.
When Castro and his forces swept down from the mountains, Batista's army surrendered or deserted. Cuban soldiers knew that Batista could not survive. In December, the dictator began flying his family out of the country. Some arrived in Jacksonville, Florida and were cursed at the airport. Batista left Cuba on December 31, 1958. Castro's victory was not military but psychological.
On January 2, 1959, Castro's 26th of July movement's men marched into the capital . They were bearded and wore camouflage uniforms. Even in victory, Castro was a master propagandist.